Sleeper: All the news that’s fit to sell

Whether you’re reading this in print or online, you may be the last of a dying breed — even if you’re under 21.

I don’t mean that newspaper readers are dying, or even that print itself will die. But I do worry that few people can still pick up a newspaper that comes from and speaks to a community of readers: one that shares not only a geographical location but a sense of belonging and participation; one that tempers its disagreements with some common commitments.

For instance, members of the community served by this newspaper share a commitment to liberal education. They value “an ethic of mutual trust and respect among students and faculty that lies deep in our origins and traditions,” as the university’s president, Kingman Brewster Jr. put it in 1965.

Although we disagree about what these mean, the fact that we can and do disagree in a common forum shows that we care enough about these meanings to keep working on them.

Campus publications strengthen that caring even when they publish nasty debate or ribald satire. Why? Because the people who run them came together not to put out something splashy that will glue your eyeballs and pry open your wallet, but rather, to express some variant of the civic passion that goes with participating in a community, even with shaking it up.

The same should be true of any large civil society, even if not as intensely. The First Amendment was written to protect civic passions, by specifying only one enterprise — the press — whose free speech can’t be abridged.

The framers were not trying to protect the “speech” of media conglomerates — which, unlike this newspaper, exist only by and for their bottom lines and buy up public debate toward that end. Yet, the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling of last year protects corporate funding of election ads as if they were “speech” by deliberating citizens, not ads for engines of profit.

The framers wanted to protect citizens’ ability to put the public interest ahead of their bottom lines sometimes, only possible by debating on a level playing field. Whatever its technology, journalism is at heart a civic craft designed to make public deliberation go well. It requires passion, discipline — and, yes, some profit!

But how much profit before the tail starts wagging the dog? Newspapers began dying years ago not because of journalists’ sins but because of profound shifts in demographics, technology, and most fatefully, stock-market ownership that displaced readers as well as the press moguls and family trusts.

Few old media barons ever deserved the rhapsodies that loyal scribblers composed for them, but the editors and reporters they employed did sometimes produce brave reporting that stirred readers and gratified the owners’ civic pride even while returning less profit than the ads or sports pages.

Conglomerates have no civic pride. They’re transforming “the public” into an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of consumer audiences, mass and niche, assembled and reassembled on whatever ideological, religious, erotic or nihilist pretexts might pull them in, along with advertisers.

Political stupefaction is one consequence, cultural demoralization another. Veterans of print’s glory days endure the cooptation of alternative weeklies like the Village Voice. We watch the collapse of proud dailies into witless titillation machines chained together by bean counters.

The irony is that as the new editors and reporters dumb the news down, tart it up or twist it in any direction that’ll keep passive spectators from stirring, they’re making their journalism deserve the death it was already dying. Others have started ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest that the bean-counters consider too expensive.

Even nonprofits need income, but that’s not the end of the story. Real journalists are regrouping. For example, the New Haven Independent, founded by Paul Bass ’82, is using online journalism to re-weave a community of citizens.

It, too, will need profits, but something else as well. Just as the American republic began when spirited citizens formed Committees of Correspondence to resist mercantilism and a divine-right monarchy, today’s citizenry must find ways to defend both journalism and the republic from conglomerate “speech,” the corporatist drivel that’s displacing public deliberation.

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science and 1969 graduate of Yale College. He teaches the seminar “Journalism, Liberalism and Democracy.”

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    *defend both journalism and the republic from conglomerate “speech,” the corporatist drivel that’s displacing public deliberation.*

    EVERYMOB

    And twitter hysteria? You-tube nation? Facebook revolution? Wilkileaks-pedia? They may be effective in overthrowing governments, or exposing the Emperor’s New Clothes, but what about potential hysteria over inaccurately hypothesized epidemics? False terrorist accusations?

    The very personal-hand-held keyboards and cameras which make EVERYONE a journalist may also make EVERYONE a mob.

  • JimSleeper

    When I wrote above about the soufflé-like collapse of “once-proud dailies into witless titillation machines, I wasn’t thinking of the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal, although journalism at all three has been compromised more than it should be by marketing considerations and political conceits which their publishers think will be profitable.

    The internet enables many who’ve felt voiceless in the public sphere to start blogs or websites driven by the civic passion that profit-seeking alone would only dumb down, tart-up or eviscerate. And the net’s instantaneity and interactivity energize movements, the gusts of civic passion that figured in Obama’s election and the Republican victories of 2010.

    What the net hasn’t done yet is provide the discipline and authority that a common forum needs for public deliberation to proceed toward actual decisions and institutions that can make them stick. The net makes it easy to spend all your time in echo-chambers, hearing the opinions you already have. Obama’s supporters learned after he was elected, and Tea Partyers are learning now, that such gusts of civic passion that bring people to the polls are not the same thing as deliberating, voting organizations that sustain power over time. The latter need a forum that people of varied persuasions trust enough to debate one another in, knowing that this will lead to binding decisions they’ll all have to live with. The physical solidity and limits of a good newspaper symbolize that and are actually a step toward it.